Tucker Carlson Set The World On Fire
Now he can watch it burn
I did not want to write about Tucker Carlson in 2018. I’d been given the assignment by The Columbia Journalism Review after writing about Lewis D’Vorkin, then the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times, a profile that contributed to his firing; and about the brilliant crime writer Pamela Colloff, a profile that helped her land jobs with ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine.
My editor thought I was a good choice to write about Carlson; I wasn’t so sure. Carlson had already been profiled by every major news outlet (an unforced error those outlets kept making and will continue making until he dies).
I told my editor I would only take the assignment if Carlson agreed to talk to me. And he did. A friend had slipped me his personal email address, and when I made the ask I emphasized that I was just a mom in Iowa who also happened to be a journalist. When Carlson’s PR person called me to screen me, I was chaperoning my daughter’s field trip to a hobby farm. On the call, I talked the PR rep’s ear off about seed crops and switchgrass, neither of which are grown on that farm, which features overpriced attractions like a corn maze and goats you can feed for 25 cents.
Carlson agreed to speak with me and we talked a couple of months later. It was a terrible interview. Looking back on the transcript, I’m embarrassed by the number of “ums” and “ahs” I uttered. I’d ask a question and he’d bloviate about George Orwell and censorship and how liberals are censoring the real facts on gender. When I pushed back, asking if — for example — he was confusing gender and sexuality, he insisted that he was right and that I was a humorless scold.
After the interview, I called my friend Elon Green in tears. “It was awful,” I told him. “I have nothing usable. His words barely make sense. He yelled at me.”
“Good,” Elon said. “That’s what you write.”
In 2018, I was trying desperately to understand what had happened to America in general and to my marriage in particular. My divorce was finalized that year and I was broke. I was working on an old computer my dad had given me and it stopped working while I was in fact-checks for the story. I had to take it to the computer store to get it fixed, depleting what little remained in my bank account.
A friend took pity on me and PayPalled me some lunch money so I could go to Popeyes and get a sandwich while my computer was being fixed. I cried so hard in the Popeyes parking lot that I fogged up my glasses. When I pulled out of the parking lot into traffic, I hit another car. The impact drove my face into the steering wheel and I got a bloody nose. When I walked out of my car, I burst into tears and the woman I’d hit gave me a hug. “Everything is going to be okay,” she told me.
I know this story well because I had to tell it multiple times to various lawyers after the same woman sued me and my insurance company a year later.
What I am saying is that in 2018, everything in the country and in my life seemed to be broken — from my computer to my marriage — and all the men around me were yelling. My ex was sending me emails about how I was a bad mother and a bad person. The president was yelling every day on Twitter. Carlson was yelling on the television.
I wanted desperately to know how everything had fallen apart. I didn’t want to talk to Carlson because I was tired and I felt like he’d be just another man who’d yell and yell and nothing would get better. But I needed the money, so I talked to him and I learned nothing. America has learned nothing.
At the time, I heard people say that Carlson was just faking his persona for the entertainment value. People assured me he wasn’t a rabid racist; he was a nice guy. What he was doing was just an act, a show. But did it matter, if everyone believed it? If you act like a racist long enough, don’t you become one? In any case, reading his earlier work showed me that anyone denying his racism was either ignorant or lying. But there is a difference between disinformation that hides behind a bowtie and disinformation that has a prime-time slot on a powerful cable news network.
It’s been five years since I wrote that profile. I make money now. I have a house and two dogs. I can buy Popeyes whenever I want. But Carlson’s sinister rhetoric still weaves its way through my life. My ex’s politics are further right than ever, and these past five years I’ve had to co-parent not just with him but with disinformation on vital issues like masks and vaccines. I’ve watched my neighbor, who was laid off amid the pandemic, take retirement and watch more and more television. I’ve seen him turn from “this covid stuff seems bad” to “this is made-up and it’s you liberals' fault.”
And it’s not just conservatives. I’ve seen journalists and media personalities take on the dunk-tweet persona to elevate their careers. It’s an information economy of Russiagate, InfoWars, where nothing is true and everything is possible, and notoriety confers legitimacy.
Carlson wasn’t the one who got us here. Jon Stewart made entertainment-as-news long before Carlson did. One could argue that there is no Carlson without Stewart. Stewart helped elevate Carlson to his current cultural status by debating him and then chiding him in a now-infamous segment — a segment that inspired a standing ovation from liberals and outrage from conservatives. Stewart also claimed he was just a comedian, not a journalist. Legally, Carlson has made the same defense. The two men have left wildly different legacies — there is no parallel there. But one paved the way for the other by popularizing a model of news as derisive entertainment.
And it’s a lucrative model. Just ask some of the most popular newsletter writers on this site. And while Carlson didn’t create this world alone, he did showcase how to make it bankable. The Carlson model of shouting and shouting, then claiming you’re being censored when people push back, is now a career path. Media personalities are monetizing the outrage they create with no concern for who it may harm.
I want to believe we’ve learned something. I want to believe that something has changed for the better. I called Richard West, a communications professor at Emerson College, who helped me analyze Carlson’s rhetoric in 2018. I asked him if anything has changed. He’s kind, but he tells me “no”, there will always be hate and there will always be someone who will spout it. Carlson replaced Bill O’Reilly. Someone will replace Carlson. Old men shouting is too profitable a business model to quit.
The Carlson model of shouting and shouting, then claiming you’re being censored when people push back, is now a career path. Media personalities are monetizing the outrage they create with no concern for who it may harm.
The years since 2018 have seen a pandemic and an insurrection, and Carlson’s rhetoric exacerbated the effects of both those disasters. His career at Fox is over, but its damage remains: journalists he’s led mobs against; a covid toll needlessly worsened by disinformation; an insurrection fueled by election conspiracies Carlson helped to spread, even while knowing they were false.
Carlson wasn’t alone. There were others. But he was the loudest, the most powerful, and the most vicious. Nina Jankowicz became the target of the Carlson outrage machine when she was appointed to head up the newly formed Disinformation Governance Board of the United States Department of Homeland Security. In an interview, Jankowicz told me that while she’d been attacked by other commentators, she always knew when Carlson had slammed her because the hatred and harassment she received, as a result, were so overwhelming. A mention by Laura Ingraham would maybe make a couple of people attack her. But a segment from Carlson would send a teeming wave of hate in her direction. An army of shitposters, ready to direct their rage at any target Carlson deemed abhorrent.
In a bitter piece of dramatic irony, the Disinformation Governance Board was so successfully targeted by disinformation that the board itself was quickly dismantled. Jankowicz tells me she’s still dealing with online harassment.
Carlson, Jankowicz noted, will be just fine. He has powerful friends who will help him whitewash his image. And enough money to insulate him from the impact of the world he helped to set on fire.
Here is the profile I wrote of Carlson in 2018. The weird repeated paragraphs are pull quotes that somehow came unformatted.
Also, I did eventually contact the woman who accused Carlson of rape and recanted. I wrote about it here. I only bring it up because every time I write about it, I hear from people who tell me this story as if I don’t know and I want to stop the spread of a conspiracy theory. I think Carlson using her story and naming her in his book was a cruel thing to do and I don’t want to be part of that.
And I did write something for The Guardian where I asked people like Brian Stelter and Lauren Duca what Carlson’s legacy is. And the quotes are amazing. That will be published soon!
Correction: After some very helpful insight from the community, I reworded the way I wrote about the Carlson rape accusation.